City firefighters moved in to the award-winning $14 million Fontaine Avenue fire station more than a year ago, but Charlottesville taxpayers might not be done footing the bill.
The project could cost another $1.6 million under a lawsuit filed against the city by Costello Construction, the Maryland-based contractor that built the 38,000-square-foot firehouse. That amount doesn’t include more than $800,000 in change orders Charlottesville already has paid over the course of what Costello’s company president described as a “prolonged nightmare.”
“We have only filed suit against one other client before in the history of our company and we’ve been around 20 years,” David Costello said.
Defects in the project specifications, changes to the work and the city’s failure to provide timely direction for nearly 400 requests from Costello for additional information delayed the project’s finish by 223 days — extending the estimated time of completion nearly 50 percent — according to a 16-page complaint filed in federal court.
“Everyone who set foot on this construction site lost money,” Costello said.
The city’s project manager, Mike Mollica, declined an interview request and referred all questions about the project to the City Attorney’s Office.
“I’d love to help you, but I need to follow directions from City Hall,” Mollica said. “I don’t know that there’s much of a story there, to be honest with you.”
Each of the 387 requests for information Costello issued was due to a defect, conflict, inconsistency or omission in contract documents, the complaint states. The confusion prompted 63 supplemental instructions from the project’s Reston-based architect, LeMay Erickson Willcox, and 49 construction change directives, 52 construction field orders and three field directives from the city.
The project initially was scheduled to finish in April 2013, but firefighters did not move in until February 2014, according to city Fire Chief Charles Werner.
“That sounds like a lot of changes,” said Stephen Mulva, an associate director of the Construction Industry Institute at the University of Texas, who specializes in performance assessments.
Mulva ran the delay and number of requests for information against statistics on projects maintained by the institute and found nothing in the range of what Costello experienced.
“We’d consider this project an outlier because it’s worse than the worst project in our database,” Mulva said.
Among nine pages of changes listed in purchase orders provided in response to an open records request:
» $932 to “provide for planned coffee makers”
» $1,072 to change the color of Corian countertops in restrooms to “dove”
» $1,590 to relocate the ceiling fans in the dormitory bunkroom “to avoid contact with the locker doors”
» $21,400 to revise stair tower framing
» $3,858 to add a stone face to the second-floor parapet at the training deck
» $1,389 to swap out two ceiling fans for different models
» $1,346 to change a door frame to match the first- and second-floor openings
» $451 to “provide temporary cover over the building signage”
It took an average of about 8.5 days for the city to respond to the firm’s requests for information for a total of 3,279 days of combined wait time, Costello said. The wait was 14 days or more in at least 73 instances, according to the complaint.
City spokeswoman Miriam Dickler said the combined total was “misleading.”
“That amounts to 8.98 years — this project has not been ongoing for over eight years,” she said.
The number was among several factually inaccurate or exaggerated statements in the complaint, Dickler said. She did not elaborate.
Lawyers for the city have argued in court filings that the case be dismissed on procedural grounds. They also point to a line in the contract specifying that the work be completed for a fixed, agreed-upon price.
Costello said the firm had to hire two extra managers for the project, whose hours exceeded the bid estimate by 3,000.
“When projects are delayed, labor becomes inefficient, and it’s the kiss of death,” he said.
The firehouse, which officials said also hosts community meetings at no charge and soon will be home to a city police substation, won a design award last year from the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization. By all appearances, the city’s first new fire station in more than 50 years has achieved its intended purposes.
“From every standpoint, we have met or exceeded our expectations,” Werner said.
Fire response times have decreased, helping the city score a 1, the top rating on a 10-point scale from the New Jersey-based Insurance Services Office, which rates fire districts for the insurance industry. Just 60 districts have acquired the top rating. Insurance companies use the ratings to help determine property premiums, with stronger ratings for fire departments leading to lower premiums for property owners.
Once far-flung, training now is conducted at the Fontaine station with firefighters working through an array of scenarios ranging from tunnel work to high-angle rescues, such as responding to an injury at a construction site. Werner said the department executes a high-angle rescue once every nine months.
Rainwater harvested from building grounds feeds into a 20,000-gallon underground tank and is used to wash fire trucks and station floors. Photovoltaic film applied to the roof will reduce energy consumption and is one of many design features that helped earn the building a coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
Inside, the building’s gleaming glass atrium features a 17-foot I-beam of donated structural steel from the World Trade Center. Firefighters resting in their dorm rooms are awakened by flashing lights and progressively louder tones instead of traditional alarms. Natural light filters in through 25 solar tubes.
“You may have a situation here where the push for design and LEED certification drove a lot of confusion,” said Mulva, who specializes in project management. “It’s admirable that the city wants to do something neat and the contractor wants to be able to deliver at the lowest cost possible, but that’s where things can become complicated.”
Costello’s base bid of about $9.1 million was the lowest by $500,000 among six companies that sought the contract. The highest estimate, from Manassas-based Whitener & Jackson, came in at $10.2 million. Charlottesville has paid Costello $10.1 million to date.
“The history of this across the country is the same as what you guys are experiencing [in Charlottesville],” Mulva said. “It’s the prototypical nature of these types of projects. If they had wanted to build a plain, rectangular building, they wouldn’t have had any problems.”
Costello said he was eager to return to Charlottesville after a positive experience building the Water Street Parking Garage about 10 years ago.
“Ironically, it was one of my favorite projects I’ve ever built,” he said. “It went so smoothly, we were excited to come back and build for you guys, but there was a whole new cast of characters.”
The project is listed as the first testimonial on Costello’s website alongside notes of gratitude for a fitness complex, college buildings and civic centers.
“Just a personal note of thanks for your efforts in completing the garage on time,” wrote Bill Letteri, now a deputy county executive in Albemarle. “I know you took personal interest in making sure the facility was ready for use for the holiday season. You have been a great team player on this project.”